P30. The Opposition. An Electoral Pact Needed. Foreign Policy. "Labour's Immediate Programme"

[ Manchester Guardian , 6 December 1938, pp. 11-12 [1] . © Guardian]

6 December 1938

By R. F. Harrod (Lecturer in Economics at Oxford)

In this lull after the storm and time of anxious waiting progressive forces in the country appear to be hovering in indecision. On the one hand, Mr. Vernon Bartlett's brilliant success has aroused hopes of co-operative effort; [2] on the other, it appears that the machinery of party government may oppose obstacles to the fulfilment of these hopes. No clear call has come from any political leader to mobilise those of like mind in a united Opposition.

This gives grounds for serious misgivings, for the time is ripe for Opposition victory. The record of the present Government is such that if British democratic institutions were working with normal health the Opposition would be waiting with considerable confidence for power to fall to it at the next election, almost as a matter of course. While the pendulum of opinion may swing between Left and Right, the British electorate hates bad government, and, with the additional asset of being able to arraign the Government for gross inefficiency, Opposition victory should be certain.

Britain's Decline

However one may differ in Fascistic or anti-Fascistic leaning and about the proper aims and principles of foreign policy, there can be no doubt that both in the case of Abyssinia and in that of Czecho-Slovakia British diplomacy, with manifest indecision and its machinery creaking and groaning, led the country along a path of humiliation to inglorious defeat. [3] Any defence policy has been open to a similar indictment. Whatever their political opinions, future historians are likely to regard the period of 1931-8 as one of those bad patches in the history of the country when she suffered from a weak Government unable to deal with its problems. For a parallel they may search back to the age of George III and Lord North; a closer analogy is provided by the Ethelred the Unready of our school books.

If the Opposition is unable to utilise this unique opportunity to secure victory it is unlikely ever to do so. His Majesty's Opposition will then become an empty formality, and with it will go the functioning of democracy as we have known it. Cabinet reshuffles within the limits of a single party machine [4] are no proper substitute for alternation between parties. Recent years give a poor tribute to the efficiency of such a system, and it is hard to see how genuine democracy can subsist under it. The one-party system is in principle a Fascist system. Have we already come to that? Lacking the fanaticism of Fascisms of the foreign type, it is not likely even to acquire their one virtue of forcefulness.

Why is the Opposition so lacking in confidence? Has its life ebbed away under the stranglehold of the new-found rigidity of party machinery? Or are its internal differences of opinion really too great? In any event, it is surely the primary duty of progressives to work for unity. The ideal would be a joint statement by party leaders. Failing that, local efforts may still be made in constituencies or groups of constituencies based on a resolute determination not to split the Opposition vote nor to alienate moderate opinion. [5]

Domestic Affairs

While likemindedness on foreign affairs provides the cement, internal policy could not be neglected with impunity at a general election. What workable compromise can be arranged which will not discourage the parties in the constituencies and make headquarters fear that local vitality will be sapped? Matters should be so arranged that each party in the constituency can feel that the Opposition candidate, whatever his particular allegiance, is in some sense their own for the period of the pact, which need not extend beyond the next election. Since the Labour party is, in fact, the largest Opposition party and commands the most powerful organisation, it appears to me to be only fair that its official programme should be the first item on the agenda for agreement on domestic issues.

I have carefully studied the document entitled "Labour's Immediate Programme," [6] and I judge that most progressives should be able to accept it, subject to a not intolerably lengthy list of reservations. Moreover, the reservations required would not touch on any point likely to involve action in the next Parliament, but rather on certain general propositions which, whatever their merit, are symbolic of social revolution.

Possible differences

The nationalisation of the land is an example. Liberals, "Independent Progressives," or dissident Conservatives might refuse to accept this principle, while being prepared to approve such compulsory powers as were necessary for an agreed programme of agricultural reconstruction, defence measures, or the preservation of amenities. The nationalisation of the Bank of England is another example. As an economist I view this as a matter of secondary importance. What is important is that there should be a currency and credit policy designed to secure for the pound sterling a stable purchasing power over goods and to promote full employment. Only in the unlikely event of the Bank of England refusing to carry out the measures necessary to give effect to this policy need the question of compulsion arise. [7]

If only those concerned could get down to details the list of reservations should not be difficult to compile. On this basis Labour voters might give their whole-hearted support to non-Labour progressives, on the ground that they were committed to support all that was necessary in the forthcoming Parliament, while non-Labour progressives would support a Labour candidate and feel secure against the introduction of measures involving violent social upheaval.

The Dissident Conservatives

There is another section of opinion to be considered--the Right-wing Conservatives. Their leading sentiment is patriotism. As it happens, things have worked together to make them wish for the same foreign policy as those whose principal ideal has been social regeneration. If there is to be co-operation these patriots must do some heart-searching on the domestic issue. One cannot always have all one wants in politics. Those who disliked Home Rule but wanted Free Trade had to make up their minds which was the more important. [8] Patriotic Conservatives, if they wish to see their country great, must seek anew for the elements within her capable of making her great. Official Conservatism in the post-war period has been overfilled with the lotus-eating type.

On the home front the most notable example of British grit and doggedness in recent generations has been the creation of trade unionism. Among the more favoured classes, I, from my vantage-point in Oxford, have witnessed in the last twenty years so much of the virility and enthusiasm of youth pouring itself into movements of the Left but failing to find vent for its powers in public life owing to divisions within the Opposition. If patriots wish to see their country's greatness restored they must not turn their backs on those vital elements in the body where the necessary ingredients of true greatness are to be found. They must look again at "Labour's Immediate Programme" and have a change of heart on the domestic issue.

A Great Opportunity

Foreign policy, a vigorous defence programme, the removal of surplus profit from rearmament, the conquest of trade depression and unemployment by drastic measures [9] --an Opposition united on these points should easily sweep the country. The Opposition is amply equipped with able personnel. And that ability will be raised to its highest pitch by the greatness of the opportunity. So long as the attitude of mind at the top is one of moaning and groaning, the sense of being driven from pillar to post, the personalities are inhibited from using to the full even such gifts as they have. When that atmosphere is replaced by a sense of historic mission and great opportunity, with England called upon to play one of the most important rôles in her history, the ability of the new leaders will be elicited in full measure.

  1. 1. While taking part in the Oxford by-election campaign (see notes 1 and 6 to press item 28 ) and after Lindsay's defeat, Harrod expanded contacts with opposition politicians and dissident Conservatives advocating a nationwide electoral pact. Sinclair congratulated on Harrod's success in obtaining Liberal and Labour support for Lindsay, but warned him that previous attempts to organize Liberal-Labour pacts on a national scale had failed because of the intransigence of Labour (see letters 856 R, 857 R, 870 R, and note 1 to letter 856 R). Dalton remained sceptical (see letters 861 and 869 R), while Churchill expressed some interest in Harrod's suggested adhesion of dissident Conservatives but eventually thought the time not to be ripe for such a step (letters 855 , 863 and 866 ).

    This article for the Manchester Guardian, stimulated by "the brilliant success" of the Popular Front candidate Vernon Bartlett in the Bridgewater by-election (see note 2 below) on the one hand, and by the newspaper's very favourable attitude towards the popular front experiment in Oxford (the campaign was reported daily from the announcement of Lindsay's candidacy to poll's day), was written in view of future campaigning. Harrod had it reprinted (a copy of the reprint is in HP VI/501-502/8), and sent off a number of copies: one went to Churchill, who showed lukewarm interest (letters 874 and 876 R), one to an unidentified correspondent (who acknowledged receipt on 15 December, in HP VI-523), one to Eden (letter 880 R), and another to Macmillan. Macmillan took the matter seriously, and invited Harrod to discuss the situation (letter 877 R). Perhaps as a result of this talk, Harrod sent a further copy of his article to Eden (letter 880 R).

    Further talks with Dalton (letter 875 R, and a viva voce on 29 December) and Macmillan (letters 882 , 883 , 885 , 886 R, 891 ), together with the Labour Party's intransigence on the Cripps affair (see note 1 to press item 31 ) induced Harrod to renounce the idea of organizing the Liberal and Labour opposition and to concentrate instead on the dissident conservatives and the supporters of Cripps. This led him to further circulate the Manchester Guardian article, which he sent together with a circular letter to dissident conservatives on 1-3 February 1999 (letter 894 ).

    2. The Liberal journalist Vernon Bartlett broke, as an Independent Progressive, a long Conservative monopoly of the Bridgewater seat. The Manchester Guardian's comment stressed the continuity between the Oxford City and Bridgewater by-elections; Lindsay himself spoke in favour of Bartlett ("Mr. Bartlett Making Headway at Bridgewater. A `Tory Stronghold' Shaken", Manchester Guardian, 11 November 1938, p. 12).

    3. On the British reaction to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia see note 2 to letter 476 , on the German invasion of the Sudeten see note 1 to press item 28 .

    4. Reference is to Eden's position: see letter 874 to Churchill of 9 December 1938, [jump to page] .

    5. Consistently with this postulate, Harrod was organizing popular fronts in the constituencies neighbouring Oxford: see note 1 to essay 21 .

    6. The Labour Party, Labour's Immediate Programme (1937). A copy, annotated by Harrod, is in HP VI-176 (in the following quotations, Harrod's underlining is rendered in the same style). Harrod commented "good" on the following points: "A National Transport Board will [...] be set up [...] to own and operate the Railways and such other Transport Services as are suitable for transfer to Public Ownership" (p. 4); "A Labour Government [...] will play its full part in every effort [...] to substitute an International Air Police Force for National Air Forces and to establish an International Service of Civil Aviation" (p. 8; the passage is marked with a vertical line in the margin); and "Throughout [the three Defence services], promotion to commissioned rank will be open to all, and will depend on merit alone, and no longer on wealth or class privilege" (p. 8). In the margin of the sentence "The coal industry [...] will therefore be unified under Public Ownership" (p. 5), Harrod wrote "why not nationalised?". In the margin of the opening sentence "The Labour Party's goal is the Socialist Commonwealth. It is determined to use the resources of our country so as to create a real prosperity in which all shall share" (p. 2), Harrod wrote an illegible comment, and "What a <rotten argument> if it is intended to be one". A further illegible comment is scribbled in the margin of "Taxation will be used to secure a better distribution of wealth and purchasing power, and to provide funds for the extension of the Social Services" (p. 3).

    7. On the evolution of Harrod's opinion on the nationalization of the Bank of England see note 4 to press item 28 .

    8. Presumably refers to the 1903 Free Trade Union between the Liberal Party and the Unionist free-traders against the "Tariff Reform" campaign in favor of protection launched by Joseph Chamberlain (see for instance R. Douglas, The History of the Liberal Party 1895-1970, London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1971, pp. 29-30). Reference to this event is probably not accidental, as among the men who joined the opposition the most famous was Winston Churchill, whom Harrod saw as the natural leader of the anti-appeasement front and to whom a copy of this article was sent (see note 1 to this article and letter 874 , [jump to page] ).

    9. Harrod later outlined these policy proposals in more detail in a "[Sketch of Political Manifesto]", here as essay 21 .

Welcome page

top of page

Return to index of this section

Go to previous page

Go to next page